Wednesday, May 21, 2014

9-11 Continues to Bedevil America

Here we are, almost thirteen years after 9-11, and its raw legacy continues to unfold.

Last week, the highly-anticipated museum commemorating the people and events of that awful day opened in Lower Manhattan, and right off the bat, people started fuming.  Apparently, the museum itself is a spectacular capsule of artifacts, displays, aesthetics, and even emotions, reaching down deep into subterranean Manhattan, to the base of the original towers.  However, at the end of one's tour, visitors will find a gift shop stocked with common trinkets like NYPD charms, a search-and-rescue plush toy, and black "I-heart-N-Y" t-shirts.

And some family members of the victims are outraged.  They've been shocked to find such "crass commercialism" on what they consider to be a hallowed site, even though battlefields and other death-related national parks and memorials also sell tchotchkes in their on-site gift shops, with little outcry from the public.

Of course, ever since the towers fell, many Americans have tried to insist that the World Trade Center complex had become many things:  mass gravesite, hallowed ground, haunted, holy, sacred, and fit only for some sort of shrine of remembrance.

Well, officially, the headquarters complex for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is none of those things.  It is not a gravesite, since all of the debris from New York's day of infamy were scraped up, clean to the bedrock.  Not one human bone remains in that site.  It's not hallowed, either, since none of those victims gave up their lives for their country, or for capitalism.  They were not martyrs for a cause, they were working, traveling, shopping, banking - all the things ordinary people do all over the world.  If the Taliban had announced on September the tenth that they would be obliterating the Twin Towers the next day, and provided proof that they could and would, how many people do you think would have shown up for work that Tuesday morning?

We need to separate the political rhetoric and emotional blathering from the reality that Ground Zero is an office complex first and foremost.  Selling themed merchandise - however tacky they may be - at the museum's gift shop actually represents a very American, and extremely New York, way of remembering 9-11.  After all, the city is all about money and commerce.  The new tower for One World Trade that has been built should be more offensive to victims' families, since it represents such a dowdy amalgamation of political compromise and over-engineered architecture, it will ungraciously slouch as a blight on the city's skyline until kingdom come - unfortunately, since it's been built to be virtually indestructible.

But it's easier to pick on keychains.

And speaking of buildings, according to the Washington Post, the planned headquarters for the much-maligned Department of Homeland Security was supposed to be completed this year.  It was supposed to be built on the grounds of an historic mental hospital (oh, the irony!), and house 14,000 government workers.  Instead, the former insane asylum only has one agency out of 50 that are supposed to be on-site, and funding squabbles in Congress will likely prevent anything more substantive from being built.

And the price tag so far?  Well, out of the estimated $4.5 billion budget for the entire project, roughly $1 billion has already been spent.  And the Post couldn't find a lawmaker on Capitol Hill who thought much more money would be thrown at this boondoggle.

After all, it was a boondoggle from the start, wasn't it?  In the tumultuous days following 9-11, nationalistic hawks in Washington were circling the wagons, predicting further calamitous atrocities, and clamoring for more control over America's security apparatus.  Lawmakers gave the cabinet of George W. Bush carte blanche to re-write how the government protects us, and one of the wacky ideas involved centralizing government agencies.  Centralizing them not just on an organizational flowchart, but physically as well.

Like the targeting of an office complex where 50,000 people worked every day - the very impetus for all of this kneejerk reshuffling - meant nothing to Washington's elite thinkers and planners.

Perhaps it made perfect sense to consolidate the new and wildly unwieldy Department of Homeland Security in a defunct insane asylum, but even if outside-the-Beltway logic would dictate a more prudent scattering of Homeland Security personnel across the country, if a Washington headquarters really was necessary, why not start from scratch in an open field someplace?  Or, as one pundit offered at the time, a bomb-proof bunker below ground?  Nevertheless, a couple of impoverished neighborhoods on the wrong side of the District of Columbia were assured that having such a massive office complex down the street would be an economic shot in the arm for them.  Plus, if terrorists blew it up, the tony townhomes in DC's better 'hoods would likely be spared significant damage and inconvenience.

Meanwhile, where was all of the wise counsel about never making significant changes or decisions in haste, or during a time of acute emotional upheaval?  Where was that calm leadership and unruffled stoicism that helps guide a nation during times of crisis?  You know - that conservative pragmatism on which a certain political party prides itself?

Suffice it to say that as the due date for opening Homeland Security's new digs is fast approaching, it's obvious that it's all been an exercise is hubris, waste, and partisan rancor.  Kinda like all of the new Transportation Security Agency rules that bedevil most airline passengers today, yet leave gaping holes that allow kids to stow away in wheel wells.  Or the ruthless police officers and federal agents who stormed Boston's residential neighborhoods with impunity searching for alleged marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  Their reckless disregard for Constitutional rights of being innocent until proven guilty were brushed aside as a perfunctory response to the new world 9-11 has created for us.

It's the same excuse Washington is trying to use in its attempts to brand NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden a traitor.

We can worry about the appropriateness of 9-11 keychains and hoodies all we want.  But the perpetual question ever since that fateful morning remains suspiciously unanswered:  are we any safer today than we were on September 10, 2001?

Maybe from international terrorists, we're marginally safer.  But from Washington? 


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